Camel clue to the cause of genetic diseases

Dubai centre collaborates with Harvard Medical School for camel gene research project.

Camels being taken to the race track near Liwa. A study says their genes might hold the key to abnormalities in human limbs. Sammy Dallal / The National

DUBAI // A research project studying camel genes was launched to help improve scientific knowledge of genetic diseases.

The Camel Reproduction Centre and Harvard Medical School in the United States are collaborating on a study that looks at fetal limb development in camels. The research could help detect future genetic diseases in the animals and, potentially, in humans.

"We've collected a few camel fetuses at different stages, from 26 to 50 days, and we have sent them off to the Harvard Medical School," said Dr Lulu Skidmore, the centre's director. "We've collected the embryos and they will help in being able to identify the genes."

The focus of the project is to compare fetal limb development in camels with that of mice and horses. "Digits have been lost multiple times in vertebrate evolution, particularly in the mammals," said Dr Kim Cooper, a postdoctoral fellow in genetics at Harvard. "There are different patterns of digit loss and in an effort to understand the many convergent mechanisms of digit loss, we are undertaking a comparative study of digit development in multiple species. This includes the camel as a highly derived form with only two toes and representing an incidence of digit loss."

More than 30 samples were sent to the US last month. Dr Cooper will extract RNA, which is a molecule of nucleotides in the camels' cells resembling the DNA, and examine them.

"This is like an identifier," Dr Skidmore said. "She uses certain techniques to amplify those genes that she wants to study and she is looking for a gene as to what causes a cloven foot versus five or four toes."

The process will help Dr Cooper latch on to the different genes of the camels and work out which of them differ to those in mice.

Although research is still in its early stage, results could help identify genes that cause abnormalities in human feet. "Limb malformations are one of the most common human birth defects and work on limb development stands to help us understand more about how  human development sometimes goes wrong," said Dr Cooper.

Dr Skidmore added the project could also help find out of future diseases in camels.

Camel gene research has already proven helpful in benefitting human life. The animals' milk, for instance, contains insulin-like molecules which may be used to help treat diabetes. Three years ago, an antivenin was also developed from camel antibodies to be used to treat victims of snake bites in Africa.

"Most genes between human beings and camels are similar," said Dr Nisar Wani, head of reproductive biology at the Central Veterinary Research Laboratory in Dubai. "The importance in gene studies is if one wants to do genetic modifications, or if there are any abnormalities, or to find out of any diseases that are genetic and if there are some mutations that could lead to abnormalities."

Although the whole genome of the camel was sequenced last year, scientists believe the animals have not been explored scientifically to the degree they should.

"Camels are special animals," Dr Wani said. "They are totally different and there are no animals quite like them. Many genes responsible for specific diseases were discovered last year as well as their correlation with humans. But more studies into genes could help identify diseases and possible genes responsible for them as well as ways to knock them out or modify them."

The reproduction centre's project could also discover future diseases in camels.

"It's important as a lab that we have access to camels," Dr Skidmore said. "The Harvard Medical School have access to machinery that we can't get so it's a good collaboration."

Preliminary results are expected in six months.